As a socially awkward, daydreaming teenager, I was excited about sex. I threw myself naively into relationships with hopelessly romantic visions and unrealistic fantasies of love, probably brought about by too much time Wuthering Heights and sighing listlessly while looking out of the window and listening to The Cure.
Coming from a family of liberals and hippies while attending a religious and conservative school in a well-to-do area, my friends weren’t really on the same level as me. They were more interested in Christian summer camps than they were falling in love or falling into bed, and mostly looked upon my romantic antics with a combination of amusement, concern and disdain.
So with no peers to talk about sex with, I read magazines. First the typical teenage ones – Bliss, J17 and the like, moving on to those magazines that I now hate with a passion – Cosmo, Glamour and Marie Claire. I read about all of the positions, all of the tips and tricks and techniques, that would make sex FANTASTIC. I was going to have sex all the time and it would be great. I would have earth-shattering orgasms and I would be an independent woman, in control of my own sexuality and empowered by my body’s propensity for pleasure.
Back in reality, my sexual experiences never even came close to my expectations which I had absorbed so eagerly from those magazines.
No matter what tips and tricks I tried, I didn’t enjoy sex. It was often uncomfortable and painful and the boys I had sex with thought that the way to have sex was how they did it in porn. Cue too many awkward encounters where I ended up squeezing my eyes shut and waiting for it to be over while he pushed my head towards his groin or muttered some terribly unsexy and usually offensive dirty talk in my ear.
I’d end up feeling emotionally and physically raw, disappointed and guilty for not enjoying myself when I should be. These weren’t drunken one night stands, or pity sex, or any of the other usual scenarios which people link to particularly bad sex. This was sex with my lovers, boys I got butterflies in my tummy about. I doodled hearts around their names, danced with them at gigs, each time was convinced that I was absolutely sure that I’d never been so in love before.
They were enjoying themselves, why couldn’t I just let go and do the same? Was I frigid? Was I just bad at sex?
Fast forward a few years and sex had become scary. All of these experiences, combined with a few abusive incidents at the hands of a violent ex-boyfriend, and I had had enough of sex. The magazines, all of the books and films and TV and late-night conversations with friends at university, had me exhausted. I’d fallen out of love with sex. At this point I was a few years into a relationship with my current partner, but this sexual burn-out was no reflection on him. We’d had pretty good sex throughout the relationship, but suddenly I felt defensive. It hurt having sex, both emotionally and physically. I wanted to mentally and I would force myself to physically, but I was left tearful and resenting both him and myself.
Our sex life started to diminish and I started to think about why and where my attitudes towards sex were coming from. I loved my boyfriend, I loved being intimate with him, but I still hated the pressure of sex. It was a different kind of pressure now though. I didn’t feel like I had to be amazing at it, or even have orgasms all the time, but now all of my friends were at it. Loudly. All the frigging time. It was becoming obvious to me that we just didn’t have that much sex and I was worried that it meant our relationship wasn’t as good as others, that he would be dissatisfied and leave me because I wasn’t that interested in sex.
Even though this time my negative sexual experiences were coming from a different place, I was still stuck with the same idea – that this was something I needed to get over, that I needed to chill out and relax and sex would naturally get better. The thing is, I was so caught up in chilling out that whenever we had sex I would tense up trying to force myself to relax, making myself feel guilty for not trying hard enough, while all these thoughts were whirring in my head.
I had read all the studies that showed that people who have sex more often are happier, I knew all about how emotions and stress can stop you wanting sex and make it physically painful. But knowing this didn’t make it easier. I was barely present during sex, I was trying so hard to enjoy it. Eventually we started to have sex less and less.
Finally I realised that the only way to confront this was to talk to him. This was scary for me, because somewhere underneath I had still clung on to some remnants of the insights I had gained from those magazines as a teenager. My adolescent self was shouting at me ‘but you have to love sex! It’s great! If you don’t have great sex and know how to please your man, he’ll leave you! If you tell him you’re not happy with your sex life, his ego will be destroyed and he’ll leave you!’. Somewhere along the way I had somehow come to believe that having good sex was solely my responsibility. I felt like there was something wrong with me and it was my job to fix it for the good of our relationship.
When I told him all of this, he was a little bit taken aback. Several years of hiding these feelings meant he had never realised that I didn’t enjoy penetrative sex that much. I explained to him that I loved him, I loved being intimate with him, loved all the foreplay and everything that comes with it… but that the physical act of intercourse was uncomfortable for me, both emotionally and physically. And from that awkward, painful conversation, we managed to work out between us what works for us and what doesn’t.
We don’t have that much penetrative sex, but that doesn’t mean we’re not intimate or our sex life is worse than others’. By taking away some of the pressure surrounding sex, I started to enjoy it more and I could tell the teenage me to shut up and get real. It doesn’t matter what the media tells us is good sex, or how much my friends are doing it, all that is important is that we’re happy. A difficult conversation and a lot of honesty was the first step for us in taking joint responsibility for our sex life, for having fun and expressing our love for each other while ensuring that we were both satisfied, both physically and emotionally. After all, that’s what sex is all about.
Written by Ada Watts